This is the sixth post in the Thailand in Crisis series. The previous post, The 2006 Coup, described the events leading to, and the aftermath of, the 2006 military coup that removed Thaksin Shinawatra from power.
In 2007, The Economist described the generals who staged the 2006 military coup as resembling “Arnold Schwarzenegger battling the indestructible, shape-shifting cyborg in “Terminator 2”. Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies, no matter how often they were blasted, seemed permanently able to regroup and remain influential. This would be the story throughout 2008; only with the help of the courts could the cyborg be battled effectively.
The coup-makers under Sonthi Boonyaratglin and the government of Surayud Chulanont had sought to curb the influence of Thaksin, hopefully preventing him from winning the next general election. Thaksin’s allies in the military and police were transferred out of power, the 2007 Constitution was passed to return greater power to the legislature from the executive and by May of that year, the Thai Rak Thai Party was dissolved and 111 of its executives banned from politics. Now, a new general election was called for December 23.
With the TRT dissolved and much of its leadership out of the running, the Thaksinites began seeking out a new leader for their new party, the People’s Power Party, eventually settling on Samak Sundaravej. Samak was a controversial choice. He had begun his political career in the 1970s with the Democrats, but served as interior minister in the extreme rightist government of Thanin Kraivichien following the 1976 Thammsat University massacre, during which Samak arrested hundreds of supposed leftists. Abrasive and attention-seeking, with only his passion for cooking as a redeeming quality, Samak had peaked in electoral politics as Bangkok governor in 2000. Now, however, Thaksin and his allies saw his aggressive style as necessary to fight back, and viewed his royalist credentials as impeccable. Thus Samak was chosen to be the leader of the PPP.
The 2007 election was conducted under the tight restrictions of the Electoral Commission, and resulted in a PPP victory of 233 out of 480 seats. The Thaksin appeal held. The Democrats, despite doing well in the South and in Bangkok, struggled with both the youth of their leader (Abhisit Vejjajiva was only 42) and with presenting a dynamic image of their party that would appeal beyond their base, and thus won only 165 seats. It was observed that vote buying was still rampant, especially in the northeast.
Samak moved quickly to form a new government, inviting all other parties except the Democrats to join him in a coalition. The business of governance, however, turned out to be difficult. The PPP coalition government was rife with conflict. The faction of MPs elected from the northeast, most fervently loyal to Thaksin, desired to see his quick return to power; the recently-elected Samak, however, was in no hurry to leave the premiership. His government became dubbed the “nominee” government, where Samak was perceived as simply acting as a proxy for Thaksin.
A month after Samak’s election, Thaksin returned to Thailand in 2008 from his exile in Britain, dramatically kowtowing upon his arrival to show respect for his native land. Soon after, Samak announced his intention to amend the military-imposed 2007 constitution. It was a match that sparked a new wildfire. The yellow-shirt protesters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, still led by Sondhi Limthongkul, returned in force to protest what they believed would be the paving of the road to a return to power for Thaksin. Amending Article 237 of the constitution would prevent the PPP, then under suspicion of electoral fraud, from being dissolved like the TRT; Article 309, on the other hand, could be amended to annul Thaksin’s corruption charges. In addition, the PAD seized the issue of the Samak government’s recent signing of a joint communique with Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen to receive World Heritage status for the Preah Vihear temple near the Cambodian border, which the PAD argued should be under Thai sovereignty. It became rumored that Samak’s foreign minister had endorsed the proposal as part of a deal for Thaksin to receive a casino concession and petroleum projects in Cambodia. The PAD demanded Samak dissolve parliament.
Samak, his popularity sagging, announced a new round of classic Thaksin-style populist policies and reshuffled his cabinet in a bid to save his government. It was to no avail. By the end of July, Thaksin had fled the country to avoid impending charges, never to return (he would be convicted of abuse of power in October). The PAD protests continued to escalate and by August, the PAD moved to seize Government House, forcing the prime minister to move offices. “There is a small possibility of anarchy. We will do so to pressure the government”, PAD leader Sondhi declared. Thaksin’s supporters, the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) or the red shirts, moved into Sanam Luang to counter-protest. In September, the two groups clashed, leaving at least one dead and causing Samak to declare a state of emergency. Tej Bunnag, the foreign minister, tried to explain to foreigners that the chaotic scenes in Bangkok were simply “part of Thailand’s political evolution and the democratic process”; few bought that explanation.
The end for Samak came swiftly and surprisingly. The Constitutional Court found him guilty of receiving payment for hosting two cooking shows called “Tasting and Grumbling” and “All Set at 6 AM” while being prime minister, which it deemed a conflict of interest. Thus, the court ordered Samak removed from office. It was certainly a bizarre reason for a prime minister to be removed, and the court permitted Samak’s re-appointment. Yet this did not happen. Factional leaders within the coalition government withdrew support from Samak in a bid to end the political crisis, and thus his attempt at a political comeback ended with failure.
Instead, Somchai Wongsawat, a former justice department permanent secretary and education minister was appointed prime minister. As Thaksin’s brother in law, it signaled a greater role in government for the exiled former premier; indeed, Thaksin had phoned in during the selection process. This was hardly a turn of events that placated the PAD, who instead ramped up its demonstrations even further. On the day of Somchai’s policy announcement speech the PAD laid siege to the parliament building, forcing Somchai to escape by climbing a fence. The new prime minister then authorized the use of force against the PAD, leading to thousands of injuries.
Chamlong Srimueang, one of the PAD leaders, then escalated the demonstrations even further by ordering the seizure of both Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi Airports, arguing that the massive economic damage was a small price to pay to save the country. The military and police did not intervene as all incoming and outgoing flights were cancelled. A Democrat MP argued “The entire world understands that [an airport seizure] is a normal matter in the struggle of democratic countries.” Thailand, it seemed to all, had descended into total anarchy.
It turned out to be a judicial intervention once again that would resolve the crisis. Eight days after the airport seizure, the Constitutional Court found the PPP and two of its coalition partners guilty of electoral fraud, ordering them dissolved. Its executives were banned from politics, including Somchai. Just four months after Samak’s fall, his successor followed.
The events of 2008 marked a turning point where judicial activism became a new normal that overshadowed military intervention. The activist courts were effective in felling two premiers in the span of a year, but these decisions left the legitimacy of the judicial system in crisis. Technocrat MR Pridiyathorn Devakula remarked:
The judgments in a few cases affected the confidence of people in the justice system. I do understand that such judgments did help in easing up political tension. But it is not worth trading it with the confidence of people, local and international, in the justice system as a whole. Political problems should be solved by political means….
2008 also demonstrated the resolute will of the PAD to prevent and obstruct Thaksin’s return to power. The result was the seizure of major government buildings and airports, in the name of overthrowing the PPP government. In the next year, however, events would reverse, and soon enough it would be Thaksin’s supporters claiming this power to destroy a government by any means necessary.